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Every city public school is supposed to have a gender neutral restroom this year, the School District of Philadelphia announced in August. But almost two months into the academic year, some still don’t, teachers and students told Billy Penn — or the one they do have is inadequate or inaccessible.
In some cases, teachers reported their building does have a gender neutral bathroom, but administrators never publicized it to students. Others lamented that the nurse’s office bathroom was designated as the only gender neutral option, forcing resources to do double duty at a time when school nurses are stretched dangerously thin.
“The more you become familiar with the school district, this is actually very normal of them,” said Jeffrey Kolman, an art teacher at Bodine High School for International Affairs in Northern Liberties. “They’re always making grand statements to pat themselves on the back before they’re actually able to meet those statements.”
Sayre High School student Kai Coleman, a 17-year-old who is cisgender, said she knows at least one trans girl who’s been instructed to use the boys’ bathroom.
“A lot of people are uncomfortable with the fact that a person assigned male at birth would be going to the female bathroom,” Coleman said, describing the reaction of some students and staff members. She said “nobody really made a big enough deal about it” for the boys’ bathroom rule to be changed.
The school district’s summer mandate comes after a citywide ordinance enacted in 2016, which requires all public buildings to drop “male” or “female” labels on single-occupant bathrooms. The law is rarely enforced.
District spokesperson Christina Clark said school principals, facility area coordinators and building engineers were responsible for implementing gender neutral restrooms. The district has conducted random inspections, she said, to ensure that actually got done — and then surveyed staffers for details. Clark couldn’t immediately obtain the results of the survey, or say whether any schools failed to turn it in.
“Under the most ideal circumstances, the desired solution to establish a gender-neutral restroom at each school would be to have a 21st century, gender neutral, ADA compliant restroom which is prominently positioned in a central location at the school,” Clark said. “Right now, we have done the best we can to designate a serviceable restroom at each school as gender neutral.”
Clark cited persistent infrastructure issues. Philly schools have long been plagued with facilities problems. Many are housed in old, deteriorating buildings riddled with lead paint and asbestos.
Art teacher Kolman, who is nonbinary, said the only gender neutral restroom for students at their school is inside the nurse’s office. That’s a problem, because it puts a spotlight on queer and trans students for their identity — and it isn’t always available, like when students are sick.
“It’s tricky to accommodate the students who need it,” Kolman said. “Students have been turned away.”
Nationally, more than one-third of trans students avoid school bathrooms completely, either holding it in or limiting their fluid intake to do so, according to a 2013 study by LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit GLSEN.
English teacher June Freifelder, who advises the gender and sexuality alliance at Hill Freedman World Academy, said she knows at least one trans student who refuses to use the bathroom at school for the entire day because he doesn’t feel safe.
“Going to the bathroom is a basic need,” Freifelder said. “All students need to have their basic needs met. If you didn’t feel comfortable going to the bathroom, you would not make it through the day.”
Down a locked hallway, with a broken door
On paper, Philly schools are pretty progressive on LGBTQ issues. The district’s Policy 252 mandates certain rights for queer and trans students, like allowing them to choose the uniform that corresponds with their gender. During the first virtual COVID year, the school district allowed students to change their names on Google Classroom without their parents’ permission.
At the Academy at Palumbo in Bella Vista, English teacher and GSA adviser Ron Paulus is pleased with the gender neutral options.
Inside his six-story building, there are three gender-neutral restrooms on the first, third and fifth floors. One is a single-stall restroom, and the other two are multi-stall. He said his GSA students have offered good feedback on the new facilities.
“They’re really excited that this exists, that someone thought enough to consider them,” Paulus said. “I’m hoping other principals and administrators are taking this just as seriously.”
Celena Morrison, director of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs, isn’t involved in the school district’s effort to open gender neutral restrooms. But she underscored the importance of these facilities.
“For some, deciding which communal restroom to use isn’t so simple,” Morrison said. “One reason is that non-binary students can face harassment in gender binary restrooms. Another reason is that students who are non-binary often must choose a ‘side’ every time they go to a place with only gendered bathrooms.”
The district’s Policy 252 is not universally enforced. English teacher Freifelder said she had no idea her school opened a gender neutral restroom this year until she asked the Hill Freedman principal to respond to a reporter’s question.
If she, a passionate advocate and GSA adviser, didn’t know about it, Freifelder wondered, how would anyone else? “I truly think it’s one of those things where, it’s there, it exists, but it keeps falling at the bottom of the to-do list to communicate it,” she said.
District spokesperson Clark clarified that it is the responsibility of a school principal or administrator to tell students about their school’s gender neutral restrooms.
Kate Conroy, the GSA adviser at Sayre High School, also didn’t know there was a gender neutral bathroom at her school. She asked her students, and they told her that one does exist — but it’s in a hallway that’s usually locked, with a door that was broken until recently. They have to ask a teacher to open it if they want to use it.
At Bodine, Kolman isn’t optimistic for changes. They say schools’ inability to create gender neutral restrooms stems from a larger facilities problem.
“Facilities really cannot even accommodate the number of students we have in general. We have broken bathrooms and bathrooms closed down on a daily basis,” Kolman said. “I think it’ll continue to be the sort of thing that they will congratulate themselves for addressing but not follow through on.”